No, I’m not talking about having good pajamas to sleep in or to go shopping in Walmart! Foresters, like other scientists, like to use acronyms to save space and time in filling out data forms, so here PJ is the commonly used designation for a forest composed mostly of piñon and juniper trees as the overstory. You will hear the phrase “pygmy forest” in describing the PJ forest since the trees are shorter and rarely grow taller than 50 feet, mostly less.
In our area they can be found growing generally in elevations of 6,000-7,000 feet, in the “high desert” where our average annual precipitation is only 13 inches, but not this year. Here in the Four Corners you may find the piñon pine mixed in with three different species of juniper, which are one seed, Utah and Rocky Mountain juniper, all of which were created to exist on very limited water consumption. You may hear locals refer to the “cedar” trees, those are actually the junipers.
So why am I bringing up this scrawny “pygmy” forest that we drive through to get to where the mountain forests of pine, spruce, fir and aspens are in all their radiant beauty to go fishing, skiing and hiking? Well what do you think of when you hear “cedar trees”? Probably “cedar gnats” – lots of nasty biting cedar gnats! Well, that is true in some locations, however the junipers and piñons have a lot more to offer. They exist because God created them for our local climate and a purpose which includes benefits to man and wildlife. Really?
Think for a minute what life was like living here when the Anasazi inhabited the Montezuma Valley in about the same numbers as we do today. They had no Walmart or Dollar General, so where did they get their groceries, medicines and ammunition? Where did they get their toilet paper, Band-Aids and arrows? They got them from the juniper and piñon trees. They lived in or adjacent to the PJ pygmy forest, which they used for all the above and much more in addition to cooking and heating and construction. They farmed the land and harvested the trees and wildlife.
Our early pioneering settlers were here struggling to survive in much the same way under similar conditions. A whole new forest had generated following an apparent extended drought, ending the Anasazi controlling the land.
Now that we are responsible for the pygmy forest, how can we benefit from what it provides? Here is a partial list with some obvious ones and others you will wonder about. To start with, it is winter habitat for wildlife such as deer and elk, and forage for livestock. It is good fuelwood for heating and posts for fencing and even some “cedar wood” from the Rocky Mountain juniper that looks and smells just like the aromatic eastern “red cedar,” and is used locally by the Navajo for cradle boards.
Now for some surprises, juniper berries are used for flavoring in liquors like gin as well as in perfumes and cosmetics, dyes and stains. Piñon sap/pitch is distilled and used in essential oils. The piñon nut is a much sought after food source which can also be made into flour and a drink that is very similar to “mother’s milk.” The piñon sap is also used in soap. Go on the internet to “Pinterest” and type in piñon products and you will be amazed at all the salves.
Juniper berries have been used to cure influenza, dandruff and indigestion. When I was a kid, we would chew the dried piñon “tar balls.” Piñon sap has been used for cough, cuts, bites and bruises. The piñon oils have long been used in aromatherapy. It is especially common at Christmas time. In fact many people prefer a nice piñon as a Christmas tree. The pygmy forest is a virtual pharmacology lab.
The list could go on, but the point of all this is that we have a substantial acreage of PJ pygmy forest that is not being used, cared for and managed. We have not been using the PJ forest like those before us did, I suspect today’s people prefer foam mattresses, cloth diapers and paper toilet paper over juniper bark.
Weird, isn’t it? Like all forests that are left unused to build up large numbers of trees, accumulating tonnage of dead wood is a recipe for wildfire disaster.
Considerable acreages of privately owned PJ lands are scattered around the county adjacent to the public lands of Bureau of Land Management, national parks and Forest Service, all of which contain the largest continuity of fuel for large fires. The recent drought has enabled the beetles to once again attack much of what was left of the piñon and the junipers are “self pruning” parts of the main tree for the rest of the tree to survive, while other trees are dying off.
All of this is setting up for another fire season. We should be using the dying forests instead of locking them up as faux “wilderness” to burn just like California. Even California is now admitting they had screwed up by not managing the forests. We should learn from the mistakes of others! Much of the past has been wasted, let’s not waste the future, let’s use and manage what our Creator provided for us.
Dexter Gill is a retired forest manager who worked for private industry, three Western state forestry agencies, and the Navajo Nation forestry department. He writes from Lewis, Colo.